LONDON – The word “Wahhabism” has become a boogeyman in the west, deemed responsible for the radicalization of Muslims around the world. And since Wahhabism is a strain of Islam that has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula and is the dominant religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia, that country is often viewed as the prime culprit in the propagation of violent extremism.
But blaming Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia for Islamist radicalism is a dangerous red herring. This single-cause explanation distracts from the complex political, economic and psychological reasons people join terrorist groups. In doing so, it impedes our ability to effectively fight terrorism.
Wahhabism is, in fact, a loaded, anti-Saudi synonym for Salafism, a puritanical strain of Islam that encourages emulating the “salaf,” or predecessors, the first followers of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafism has historically been apolitical and the overwhelming majority of Salafis are not violent.
Most Islamist militants have nothing to do with Saudi Wahhabism. The Taliban, for example, are Deobandis, a revivalist, anti-imperialist strain of Islam that emerged as a reaction to British colonialism in South Asia. Most members of Al Qaeda follow a radical current that emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that defined itself largely in relation and opposition to the West and its values. While some terrorists do identify as Salafi, Islamic sects that are ideologically opposed to Salafism — Naqshbandi Sufis and Shiites, among others — have engaged in violent jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
And yet much of the Western news media and far too many pundits put forward a different picture entirely, pinning the blame for terrorism on Wahhabi ideology emanating from Saudi Arabia. These arguments lead one to imagine that European terrorists end up joining the Islamic State by wandering the streets of Paris or Brussels and stumbling upon a Saudi-funded mosque. In this mosque, they read a single book, “The Book of Monotheism,” by Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, the 18th-century sheikh who founded Wahhabism. A week later, the book’s fundamentalist message inspires them to travel to Syria’s front lines or to plot terrorist attacks in Europe.
The reality is much more complex. Most of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Europe have been petty criminals who were known to drink alcohol and take drugs. Their radicalization has little to do with theology. Some European Muslims reportedly purchased books like “Islam for Dummies” before embarking on journeys to take part in jihad in Syria. What they all have in common is a belief that the Muslim world and the West are locked in an irreconcilable clash of civilizations.
It is similarly inaccurate to condemn Wahhabism or Saudi Salafism for the jihadist groups that have emerged in the Arab world in recent years. Tunisians account for the largest foreign population in the Islamic State. The group’s top ranks emerged from Iraq. Syria, of course, is a hotbed of jihadists of all stripes. And yet, these countries until recently were ruled by secular dictators, who banned Saudi missionary activities and, in the case of Iraq and Syria, viewed Saudi Arabia as an adversary.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been engaged in missionary activities in India, building mosques, schools and social service centers. And yet barely any jihadists have emerged from among India’s population of more than 170 million Muslims.
The revival of a politicized form of radical Islam, which has been taking place in the Arab world since the 1970s, is not driven just by ideology, but by the failure of Arab governments to meet the expectations of their own populations and the brutal reprisals they have employed to quell demands for better, more transparent governance. Like the social and psychological alienation that drives some European Muslims to join extremist groups, this root cause must be addressed in order to truly fight terrorism.
There is no doubt that while certain strains of Salafism are intolerant, intolerance does not necessarily lead to terrorism. Ideological intolerance is a problem in its own right, one that carries risks and dangers and requires its own treatments. But conflating its dangers with the causes of violent extremism can diminish the effectiveness of serious counterterrorism efforts.
It is Saudi Arabia — the country accused of promoting ideas that lead to violent extremism — that has effectively harnessed religion to fight radicalism. Saudi Arabia has fought Al Qaeda not only operationally, but also by countering its ideology with religious arguments. Scholars have been mobilized to condemn both terrorist acts and rhetoric. Salafi scholars have been instrumental in the success of the rehabilitation programs for those convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism.
In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdul Aziz ibn Baz, issued a fatwa condemning suicide operations. The current grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, is also on record advocating against Saudis’ joining groups fighting overseas and, in keeping with traditional Salafi teachings, has called on all Muslims to remain obedient to the legitimate leader’s dictates and avoid any form of organized political activism.
Blaming Wahhabism or Salafism for violent radicalism is not merely an intellectual slip or an injustice to Salafis, it is a distortion that stands to obstruct fighting violent radicalism and understanding its causes. Any religious ideology adopted by radicals is often a mask for other issues. Blaming or even destroying an ideology like Salafism will not end radicalism.
* This article was originally published in the New York Times newspaper.